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Millennium Post

Riders on the rain

Formula 1 racing has a huge television audience in India, dwarfing other forms of motorsports which hardly get a look-in unless sponsored. In India, motorsports is confined to a small band of enthusiasts and its niche bracket of Formula racing on purpose-built tarmac circuits or muddy gravel roads.

The latest addition to Indian motorsports is the Force Gurkha Rainforest Challenge (RFC), the inaugural event  of which was held in the hinterland of Goa between 9 and 14 August. RFC is an off-road experience for 4x4 vehicle drivers. They drive through the forests fighting incessant rains, maneuvering through changing paths, mud, steep slippery slopes, deep ruts, gullies, flooded rivers and landslides on their modified 4x4 All-Terrain Vehicles (ATV).

The lashing rains alter paths and the competitors also have to deal with unpredictable erosions, fallen trees and other unimaginable hurdles. It is a test of a driver’s mental and physical skills as well as understanding with the navigating co-driver. Started by Luis JA Wee in his native Malaysia way back in 1997, RFC has caught on in Italy, Russia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Tunisia, China and Australia. The six-day event was brought to India by Cougar Motorsport and its founder and director Ashish Gupta.

From planning the event, working out the economics, logistics, getting the permits, Gupta worked it all from scratch. The competition is divided into several Special Stages (SS), 25 in the case of the India edition, where the drivers had to conquer everything that came in their  path. Points were awarded on how well and fast the SS were completed and were deducted for violation of rules.

But there are certain challenges which the organisers have to face, the most important one being the environmental issues. As the competition is held in natural forests, RFC tend to disrupt, destroy or wither trees, boulders, rivulets and the likes. Though an environmental charter was instituted before the event with stringent guidelines to safeguard the flora and fauna, it is impossible to cross the SS without hurting the nature in some form or the other.

Another big challenge comes in the form of economics. To start with, motor racing is not a poor man’s sport. In RFC, the competitors need to own 4x4 vehicles which don’t come cheap. The entry fee for Indian contestants isn’t inexpensive either at Rs 75,000 ($2,500 for foreigners). Then comes the modification of vehicles to suit the terrain. Those monstrous tyres, heavy suspensions, racing axles and shockers are quite expensive. Maintenance also means more cash. All teams which participated in RFC India had their support teams and vehicles to address breakdowns, which are on the higher side for a six-day event the cost of which is easily imaginable. However, the sport is appealing and should soon have a fan following to make it watchable on TV for its sheer breath-taking adventure. For example, the action attracted big crowds at Dona Paulo in the first two days as locals began pouring in after hearing the loud, dauntingly large 4x4s revving up the engines and burning their tyres. The flip side was most of the action happened in the forests, away from civilisation, where spectators couldn’t drive in.

The current contract for RFC India is for three years and if Cougar Motorsport can find ways to promote it, and if it is accessible to the lay watchers, it will have a bright future.
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